President declares disaster in New Mexico wildfire zone


Firefighters slowed the progress of the largest wildfire in the United States as high winds gave way

LAS VEGAS, NM – Firefighters slowed the progress of America’s largest wildfire as high winds eased on Wednesday, while President Joe Biden approved a disaster declaration that brings new financial resources to regions remote parts of New Mexico devastated by fire since early April.

U.S. Representative Teresa Leger Fernandez announced the presidential disaster declaration during an evening U.S. Forest Service briefing on efforts to contain the sprawling wildfire in northeastern New Mexico, which spread over 250 square miles (647 square kilometers) of high alpine forest and grasslands at the southern tip of the Rocky Mountains.

“It will help us do this rebuilding and it will help us deal with the expenses and the hardships that people are facing right now,” the MP said. “We are happy that it happened so quickly.”

Fire chiefs said they were taking advantage of an interlude of relatively calm and cool weather to keep the fire from moving closer to the small town of Las Vegas in New Mexico and other villages scattered along the shifting fronts of the fire. Planes and helicopters dropped red fire retardant sludge from the sky, while ground crews cleared wood and brush to starve the fire along crucial fronts.

For days, bulldozers scraped fire lines on the outskirts of Las Vegas, which has a population of 13,000, while crews carried out burns to clear adjacent vegetation. Planes dropped more fire retardants as a second line of defense along a ridge just west of the town in anticipation of the intense winds expected over the weekend.

An estimated 15,500 homes in outlying areas and in the valleys of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains that border Las Vegas have been affected by mandatory evacuations. The number of homes destroyed by the fire stands at around 170.

President’s disaster declaration frees up emergency funds for recovery efforts in three northeastern New Mexico counties where fires are still raging, as well as parts of southern New Mexico where fires started by the wind killed two people and destroyed more than 200 homes in mid-April.

The aid includes grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses and other relief programs for individuals and businesses, according to a White House statement.

Local law enforcement officials have acknowledged the physical and emotional toll of the prolonged evacuations. Las Vegas Police Chief Antonio Salazar said his officers would provide “burglary patrols” in evacuated areas and help keep order at a local Walmart while people lined up to buy groceries. stationery.

“Repopulation is something we’re very interested in,” San Miguel County Sheriff Chris Lopez said. “Everyone wants to go home.

Dan Pearson, a fire behavior specialist with the federal government, said meteorologists forecast two days of relatively light winds before strong spring gales return.

“Our prayers are working because we had favorable winds throughout the fire area today,” he said. “We will take advantage of this fact over the next few days. … What we can do is build resilient pockets.”

The fire was brought under control over only 20% of its perimeter. Its flames on Wednesday were about a mile from Las Vegas, where schools were closed as residents prepared for a possible evacuation.

Los Alamos National Laboratory officials were cautiously tracking another wildfire that crept about 5 miles from the US National Defense Laboratory facilities based in Los Alamos on Wednesday.

Fire crews worked to widen a road that runs between the fire and Los Alamos while clearing underbrush and treating the area with fire retardant.

Wildfires have become a year-round threat in the drought-stricken West – moving faster and burning hotter than ever due to climate change, scientists and fire experts say. Fire officials are also reporting overgrown areas where vegetation can worsen fire conditions.

Nationally, the National Interagency Fire Center reported Wednesday that a dozen large uncontained fires had burned about 436 square miles (1,129 square kilometers) across five states.


Montoya Bryan reported from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Associated Press writers Paul Davenport in Phoenix and Morgan Lee in Santa Fe, New Mexico, contributed to this report. Attanasio is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on underreported issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.


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